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Art Makes Belief

Every congregation is an artist expressing and sustaining the faith at the core of its unity. Art as symbolic experience offers the windows through which church members see out into the world, and through which we see the congregation's faith.

Art renders faith through the rhyme and rhythm of music, the text and cadence of preaching, the flow and detail of prayer and the warmth and language of welcome. From the grand sweep of church architecture to the crayon assignments by the children in the nursery, works of art reflect and shape the faith that carries every congregation.

Because it can provide arenas where faith is expressed, art can become a battleground between generations and among cultural groups that intellectually share similar beliefs. People in every generation seek their own artistic signature, often in opposition to the art forms of their parents--sometimes evident in hair styles, clothing, slang phrases, musical tastes, approaches to conflict and ways of making decisions. To express their journey openly, youth can contribute their own art (more than ideas) to the worshiping community-when the gatekeepers allow it and honor its authenticity.

Conflict arises when elders' treasured art forms do not move the youth: the music seems too slow, the prayers too long, the sermon too dry . . . We have all at least witnessed the intergenerational clash over artifacts and art forms. Conflicts between generations are difficult, but at least the issues are understandable.

Conflicts seem more mysterious and difficult to explain when different cultural groups share the same faith but express it very differently. American Presbyterians are unaccustomed to all-night prayer vigils, but these have evolved as a litmus test of commitment for Korean Presbyterians (from their ordeal during the Japanese occupation in World War II). Released from the old Latin rite's uniformity, the pope now celebrates mass to the music of indigenous peoples everywhere--from the organs of the great cathedrals of Europe, to the beat of drums in Africa or the chants of native Americans. Trying to harmonize such disparate modes of expression into a single encompassing art form is the old way to build unity in the worship of multicultural congregations.

In my visits to congregations, I've noticed that art of symbolic experience does not succeed when the church simply laminates layers of multicultural or generational experiences into a single event. Art is an encounter that may not change the world immediately, but instead redefines the way we see it. Although people produce "works of art," art is not just the object created. Art is thinking imaginatively. Art happens when we "make believe."

I have felt the unifying art of music when a choir moves us to tears of caring for family, friends and those who are far away. I have seen the art of make-believe help church officers transform a retreat from an analytical planning session to the apprehension of an exciting new vision of ministry. Art is not simply the banners in the sanctuary, but the new consciousness that fills a people with bright colors in their lives.

Art unifies the congregation in creative moments when the old world looks different and the different world looks possible--that's make-believe. In their user-friendly theological method, James and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead (Method in Ministry, revised 1995) observe that vision comes not in the times of greatest effort, but when the congregation indulges in playful openness and expectation. Art, the Whiteheads say, occurs not in the calculated moment when the professional is in charge, but in people's vulnerable awareness of being part of something much larger than themselves. In play as in art, we imagine reality all over again, and we find our place in it.

True, some worshipers just don't get it. The first time our sacred dance troupe guided worship in bare feet, someone complained that "we should not have naked women dancing in church." For most members their gracious movement was a playful art that transformed our sensibilities. Yet we must not lose touch with those whose old eyes refuse to share our make-believe.

One gift that megachurches bring to the wider church is their shift from the physical art forms of gold cross, high pulpit and stone altar (or solid oak communion table) to the more participatory art forms of story, music and drama. Knowing that powerful art aggressively engages the audience, they borrow artistic media from contemporary, even secular entertainment. In African-American megachurches, by contrast, the arts of music and movement are not borrowed from others, but are sources that feed the outside world.

If our task is to strengthen faith, then the arts that sustain us best come in the playful business of "make-believe."

January-February 1996




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